Happily Living on the Cranky Comic Edge : Movies: ‘My whole comedy training goes against sentimentality and cornballism,’ says Harold Ramis, the director of ‘Groundhog Day.’


Harold Ramis, who co-wrote and starred as one of the wacky paranormal hunters in both “Ghostbusters” movies, doesn’t believe in ghosts.

He doesn’t believe in groundhogs either. At least not in the myth that the little rodents can predict the coming of spring. He even expresses a kind of contempt for them, proclaiming in an interview last Feb. 2 that he did nothing at all to mark the occasion except to remark that his favorite bit of Groundhog Day lore is that in past centuries human celebrants used to yank the hibernating fur balls from their holes and eat them.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 13, 1993 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 13, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Missing name--In a story on Harold Ramis in Friday’s Calendar, the script optioned by Columbia that Ramis said would be his next film was written by Chris Miller and Mary Hale. Hale’s name was excluded from the story.

But Ramis is probably about to do more to popularize the furry pests than any man in modern history just to serve two higher purposes in which he does believe: getting laughs, and moralizing that even on the most inane holiday of the year, we all should live each day, even Groundhog Day, as if it’s the only day we’ve got.


Provoking laughter makes sense for this former member of Second City and SCTV, co-writer of such irreverent comedies as “Animal House,” “Meatballs,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters,” and longtime pal of Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, who stars as the cranky weatherman stuck living the same day over and over again in “Groundhog Day.”

It’s just the happy little moral--which goes on to say that only by truly giving and receiving love without selfishness or manipulation do people find redemption and joy--that seems slightly askew.

“My whole comedy training goes against sentimentality and cornballism and that probably even goes double for Bill,” Ramis said. “And the one thing we never wanted to do was cross that line into syrup. I think we walk right up to the edge and this is surely the farthest that either of us has gone in a film in terms of sincerity. But even in the last act, where he becomes the ultimate do-gooder, we were insistent on keeping that sort of cranky comic edge.

“And that inspiration came from this feeling that I had about Superman--that if this guy has all the power in the world, how can he relax for a second? It always bugged me that he was off cavorting with Lois Lane when people are dying all over the world in accidents and natural disasters that he could be preventing.”

Eventually, Murray becomes a kind of know-it-all, small-town superhero. But Ramis contends that the sheer exhaustion and ridiculousness of his endeavors to save the town from all calamity allowed the filmmakers to “keep a comic edge on his saintliness.”

Ramis, 48 and father of a teen-age daughter and toddler son, said that when he read Danny Rubin’s original script, he didn’t laugh once. But, he said, he was moved by its romance and spirituality. The trick was to make it funny. Ramis supervised the rewriting, placing himself in the situation and imagining all of the emotions--both hedonistic and miserable--he would experience if he ever became caught is this purgatory of recurrence.


As a guide, Ramis and Rubin used Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ ideas on the stages of death and dying--denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Perhaps the movie’s riskiest, funniest and certainly blackest section involves Murray’s spectacular, even grotesque, attempts to deal with the overwhelming despair of being stuck forever in the exact same place. The SCTVish ghoulishness of this section of the film, Ramis said, helped to take the edge off the movie’s essential sweetness and sentimentality.

“Initially I told Bill about the idea of using the Kubler-Ross stages of dying, and he wanted to hear more. . . . But I think that’s ‘cause he was more interested in death than he was in how it related to the script.”

When Murray’s around, the script is no bible anyway. From their Second City days in Chicago, Ramis and Murray have learned how to work and improvise together and to use the script as a road map to arrive at whatever comedy the moment evokes. While Rubin said that the final film pretty much resembles his script, Murray nixed one of his favorite bits, in which his character decides to dispense with clothes.

“I can’t make Bill do the script. I can’t make him do anything,” said Ramis, who added that what makes Murray appealing to audiences--his spirit of anarchy, unpredictability and resisting authority--is intrinsic to the actor himself. “There’s a great sigh of relief when he actually comes to the set.

“We start with the script and we revise it right up to when we are shooting. We had numerous disagreements about script, about other actors’ performances, but no matter what those are, he harbors this grudging respect for my taste and judgment, if not always for my imagination. . . . But he looks to me for both inspiration and for editing.”

Murray’s looks and Ramis’ inspiration have paid off so far with strong early reviews for “Groundhog Day”: “Murray’s funniest, wisest and best movie ever,” said one review. Which is good news for Ramis, who hasn’t directed a film since the 1986 flop “Club Paradise” and last time out took some brutal jabs for his co-screenwriting job with Dan Aykroyd on “Ghostbusters II.”


After successfully directing “Caddyshack” in 1980 and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in 1983, Ramis said he was a bit depressed by the reaction to “Club Paradise.” With the “Ghostbusters” sequel, everyone involved knew it would be a bit derivative and predictable and would provoke charges that it was made cynically just for the money, he said, simply because they felt compelled to give the audience the kind of things that thrilled them the first time.

Ramis concedes that most movies made today, even some of his own, are far less risky than the comedy he broke in with on SCTV or even his early films like “Animal House” and “Caddyshack.” He explains that such a softening of the comic bite is inevitable whenever you move from a more disposable medium such as the Second City stage or the low-budget SCTV to the far more enduring medium of feature films.

“I could be 90 years old and people will be mentioning some of the cruder jokes from ‘Animal House.’ I still think you can take risks. ‘Animal House’ and ‘Caddyshack’ had some really far-out stuff in it, but they were about pushing the boundaries of taste. I’ve explored that already.

“But in a film like this with Bill Murray, I really think that the studios still want us to experiment and explore the edges because, from their point of view, that kind of originality is what has paid off so handsomely.”

Ramis plans to work again soon. Columbia has optioned for him a script by “Animal House” collaborator Chris Miller that he said contains both some wacky comedy and the potential to explore what people really think and feel about some of life’s bigger questions. But even with another potential hit on his hands, Ramis almost gives the impression that he’s living some big dream from which he will awake at any moment.

“I really do suffer from the impostor syndrome,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that any of us deserve the life that some of us are living. I mean, I think I would have been happy being a production assistant. On the other hand, having been involved even tangentially in some of the films I’ve worked on, and given the public’s deep love for some of them, I feel I’ve earned this little footnote in film history for at least two, if not four of them.


“That gives you a tremendous sense of validation, but at the same time you suffer the possibility that the next thing you do will be awful, and you have to face getting older and I’m really not looking forward to being 77 and being out there directing ‘Caddyshack XII.’ ”